Book Review: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The term antihero can be loosely used to someone that you’d want to root for but not necessarily exudes heroic qualities. If I go by with this definition for Tom Ripley, I feel very mixed up about it because he’s vile, slimy, manipulative, eugh. If we use the term supervillains, Tom Ripley is the super-antihero. All throughout the book I felt disgusted by his decisions and how he manipulates the people around him. And I felt mixed up because one side of me wanted him to pull through and the other side wants me to see him fail badly and being exposed for the scum that he is.

All the characters in the book are shallow, entitled and one-dimensional, but for whatever reason I was drawn into them, and was riveted by the plot. The hero of the book, like any good books really is in the prose. Highsmith is masterful in taking Tom Ripley from one lie to another, until the lies got so big that you feel that the wave is going to crash from somewhere. We only see the story from Ripley’s perspective, but written in third person the book makes the antihero more enigmatic.

There are gaps in between that shows Ripley’s humanity. He cries, after all. He enjoys good literature, good music and good living. From what we know, he was traumatised by the death of his parents, which explains why he tries to avoid bodies of water. So we see these human traces breathing out of the prose.

But we don’t read about him feeling any remorse or regret for the actions and the consequences that’s taken place. He is a coward in this regard, and what we read is only his concerns of how to wing himself out of sticky situations, how to escape. He is willing to sacrifice others’ relationships to advance his own goals. Ripley is also obsessed with money to live the high life.

Ripley’s sole purpose is to exist, and exist well. We don’t even know his orientation and whether he was attracted to any of the other characters in a romantic or sexual manner (even though there are hints that he has homosexual tendencies). Ripley, in short is one of the most toxic characters I’ve ever known in a book. But still, I can’t help being charmed.

What is it about Americans in Europe in literature, that we enjoy so much reading and watching in movies. Think about Hemingway in Paris, Henry James and the most recent “Call Me By Your Name”. Europe for these Americans is an avenue for escape — a paradise where good living is cheap and self-discovery is the norm. This is certainly true for Dickie and Marge, who pursued painting and writing during their life in the idyllic Mongibello, with Naples just a bus trip away and Rome within travelling distance by train.

Those who has traveled can appreciate this carefree living — and the joys of freedom that goes with it. But beneath the surface of this is the shallowness existing as such. Dickie knew that his paintings are not that great at all — he will never have a career as an artist; Marge’s novel is constantly in the works and she never really pursues publication very hard, not to mention the loathsome Freddie miles, the mediocre playwright whose lifestyle in Italy is more lavish than Dickie’s. Dickie mooches off his father’s money, the same way that Tom mooches of Dickie. I don’t feel any love for these people.

It is the decay of the American Dream, the abuse of it. In some ways, we can consider Tom Ripley a hero for terrorising this shallow dream and wreaking havoc to this hedonistic and wayward lifestyle. He’s the spanner in the works. But are we not jealous of such undeserving people living such good lives? Having a maid to cook your meals, sunset cruises in Italian lakes, skiing trips with friends after Christmas and just having the freedom to satisfy your whims to catch a train somewhere just because you want to? To put the question another way: are we not the problem as the reader?

And are we in our ugly side rooting for Tom Ripley because he hits close to home? Who isn’t guilty of being selfish and manipulative at one time of another? The Talented Mr Ripley should be a vile creation, which exposes the superficiality of the American dream and its failures, but the book is magnetic and suspenseful. Regardless of how you feel towards the characters in the book, you will have some sort of reaction reading it. For me, I sometimes read to be disturbed.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.